Welcome to POEMHACK, a regular feature in which I dig into poems often-rejected, long-stunted, and not-living-up-to-their-potential, and try and figure out why they’re not working. I’d love to look at the poem of yours you love that other people don’t seem to. If you’re into it, check the guidelines at the bottom of this post.
“I wrote this poem as one part of a chapbook. The first part has been published, but I am deeply in love with ‘of snakes&gods’ (part 2) for many reasons, including my love for John Milton and Paradise Lost. I’ve submitted it to several journals and even submitted the chapbook as a whole to some contests. It just does not seem to fit with any of their aesthetics. I’d love to get some outside perspective.”
Well, before we get too deep into the poem, the number one thing that is holding this piece back from finding a home is the italicization of the “of”s. In Times New Roman (which all of our teachers have told us is the only acceptable font to be writing poems in, which is wrong) the f is always falling into the first letter of the next word, calling me out from experiencing the poem, and forcing me to look at the word itself. That’d be fine if this were a way different poem, and maybe even if it were a more substantial word than “of”, and maybe even if the “of”s were more deliberately patterned or something, but as it stands, when I was first thinking about this poem, rather than recalling any of the stunning images, or the subtle build of momentum, or even of Milton’s charismatic rapscallion of a Satan, I found myself thinking of this poem as “the poem with the italicized ‘of’s.”
I do get the impulse – one of the highest goals of writing is to convey the true shape and flavor of one’s actually unique mind, and making personal choices about style is necessary for that goal – but in this case, it’s not having faith in the poem’s swag. What is more interesting? “i can’t wait to rip you wide open,// nestle myself in your ribcage/ where i ache to belong” or that a preposition has a particular charge to the author? Why is more attention being called to the latter?
A kind of meta-reason this poem ain’t found a home is it’s a Long Poem. I do think there’s some trimming to be done, and I’ll get to that in a minute, but, as it was sent to me, this poem was across eight pages in a word .doc, which is exactly the wrong length for most journals as we know journals now.
Eight pages is room for three poets in a print journal, and especially for any with multiple poetry editors lobbying for their faves from the slush pile, it’s a difficult call to make if at least the majority isn’t pretty effing stoked on it. If only one person’s pulling for it, wouldn’t just be easier to put their second- and third-favorite selections in, and still have room to appease another editor?
Eight pages is like eight clicks on the internet, which is 6,000 chances to go check that notification on Facebook, and 11,000 chances from there to somehow once again end up at Buzzfeed, which you hate – you have always hated Buzzfeed – but that poet you admire put up the link, so maybe this time it’ll be different, it’ll be worthwhile, it’ll be an actual aesthetic experience, but weren’t you reading a poem? Oh, there it is. Huhhh, where were you in it? Um, what if the Buzzfeed video is kittens, but in zero gravity…?
“of snakes&gods” doesn’t really having a compelling reason to be paginated so, except that each section would fit on a page of a pocket-sized chapbook. Leave that up to the publisher, unless the pagination itself is something you’re crafting. The little daggers are doing the work of dividing the sections. Trust them to it, and don’t re-do their work with page breaks.
If you chill the “of”s and ampersand-ed compounds, and cut the page breaks, this poem would get published. There’s a lot of good stuff in it, and the less engaging parts don’t feel self-indulgent or eye rolling. All it’d take is getting it in front of an editor who connects with the subject matter – which is personal taste, and can only be guessed at by what they’ve published. But for my taste, and I think for the intention of the poem, it could be working a bit better.
Let’s change this poem:
Some top-level decisions need to be made here. One would be for lyric tidiness: there’s probably three poems here that could be successfully untangled from each other to live on their own. Another would be for character: something a little milder than the intention behind the poem could be realized if you combed out a lot of the ornament and introduced a real sense of the “i” more prominently earlier in. I don’t think either of these courses of action are the most interesting.
As I’m thinking about Milton’s Satan, who’s far more understandable and far more not-totally-boring than Milton’s Christ, I’m also thinking dang that dude was an angel who was in a crazy celestial battle and is hanging out with Moloch and Mulciber, and what’s that like? That tree, that whole garden, is new to him too; he’s spent the last little while staring into the face of God. Wouldn’t that be weird for him? Like at least as much as it’d be a bummer? And if Eve is the speaker of this poem – tho that’s a tad murky – well, she’s tripping balls on sudden self-knowledge and kinda really digging on a probably similarly tripping balls Satan. Let’s let her be weirder?
I wouldn’t suggest this if it weren’t already an impulse in the poem. Most of its best moments are tearing at reality a little – description of swimming around someone else’s meat, the dreamy parataxis – but the talkiness used for the thinkiness, starting with the opening line, and the wholeness of the phrasal units even in the images – we gotta chop some articles at least – stitch it all back up too often for my taste, and too neatly for this to be anyone who just for the first time discovered knowledge.
I want this poem to accept that it’s a lyric poem – that its primary goal is conveying the shape of a mind and the feelings behind it – and for it to stop also trying to be meditative and dramatic. I don’t think my revision has found the speaker’s voice, but I’ve made the poem more jagged, halting, elliptical, painting with negative space, to illustrate the strongest moments, and to suggest a route to a weirdness more befitting the batshit loco time that was the Fall of Man.
Another decision I’d like to see made is whether it matters who the speaker is. If it’s Eve, and it really matters it’s Eve, why is this revealed so obliquely? The voice-ier moves – “i can never forget you – never let you go,” “i beg you,” etc. – need more of this to achieve their real effect; the difference between seeing someone weeping and seeing your beloved uncle weeping.
My revision kind of messes around on the alternate path: it doesn’t matter at all who’s talking, not really, and if it happens to be Eve, well, Eve’s feeling in a way identifiable to a lot of people. And if it isn’t Eve, even if it’s a person feeling explicitly like Eve, that person is feeling in a way identifiable to a lot of people. Not worrying about character construction allows a sharper focus on the imagery – there’s less voice-stuff in-between it. And tearing the voice apart a bit – “…i beg he forgets your face, my eyes-/// you’re/// & i can’t/ wait to rip you wide open” – suggests the turmoil the speaker was originally telling me about.
Of course with any poem there’s at least 20,000 ways it could go, and ultimately it’s less about some pseudo-objective notion of “improvement” are more about more clearly finding the poem. Along these lines:
A little contest:
Comment with a poem/thing at least mostly collaged from the original poem, 2 lines long or 22 or whatever, and the author will select one to award a $20 Powell’s gift card, and one to get a copy of my book Eyelid Lick. Winners will be announced next week.
I’m also super interested in any journals that are interested in the aesthetic space the poem is tromping around in. Which journals would be most interested in something like this?
If you’d like me to take a look at a poem of yours that’s getting no love but you don’t know why, please send it to me (firstname.lastname@example.org) with the subject “POEMHACK”. By doing so you acknowledge that it’s your own unpublished work, that you give me the right to post it here and do whatever I like to it, and that I am just a dude talking about one poem of yours, not your entire career or potential as a poet! Any poems I choose to write about will be posted anonymously, but feel free to out yourself in the comments.